Musical mischief and magic

I’m used to pianists who take their sweet time. They come out to the stage, they bow, they sit. They adjust their coattails. They adjust the piano bench. They pull out a handkerchief, wipe their hands, and tuck it out of sight.

The audience fidgets. Someone coughs. Someone else shifts the cross of legs in noisy fabric. The last whispers of conversation finally fade.

The pianists fidget, too. They raise their eyes to the ceiling. They lift their hands, hover them over the keys, and breathe.

The audience breathes.

And then, only then, they begin to play.

Tonight, Peter Frankl walked onto the stage of Sprague Hall. He bowed and sat. I let myself space out, anticipating the fidgeting and the not-quite-silence and the building expectation.

Wham! A jolt of F-sharp minor hit me over the head.

It was Bartók’s Allegro barbaro, and I love that Frankl took me by surprise.

I also loved the programming of the recital. I’d kind of dismissed the Beethoven because, well, pianists seemingly always play Beethoven. Beethoven sonatas in themselves are often part of the kind of unthinking, traditional programming that makes me despair that classical music performance will ever catch up to 1950, let alone to the current century.

But Beethoven sonatas after appetizers of Bartók?

Both composers can reel between impish, fierce, and tender. They build fantastic things out of small gestures. They surprise you with rhythmic shifts, expansion and fragmentation, simple elegance and roiling textures. They sing and stomp and dance. And after Bartók, you’re more attuned to Beethoven’s radicalism.

I tend to think of where Beethoven came from – the gentility of classicism falling to the heady beginnings of Romanticism. But when Beethoven is the earliest music on the program, and it’s Beethoven at his most ruminative (the two Op. 27 Sonatas, both marked quasi una fantasia, and the Sonata in C minor, Op. 111), you think about not where he started but how much he opened up.

Frankl’s performance reminded me (and I needed reminding!) how magical Beethoven can be. He’s a staple of the repertoire for so many damn good reasons. An honest, fierce, poetic performance like this, a performance unself-conscious and full of joy, shows you a whole evening of reasons.

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